NASA gives go-ahead for mission to explore ancient planet core in asteroid belt
NASA has given its approval to start construction of a spacecraft that will one day explore the metallic asteroid Psyche, which may represent the exposed metallic core of what was once a Mars-sized planet. The probe is set to launch in August 2022, after which it will endure a frigid 3.5-year journey through space before achieving orbit around Psyche on January 31, 2026.
Some scientists believe that Psyche was once an early solar system planet that suffered a violent collision with a large impactor billions of years ago. This event could have stripped the world of its outer crust, leaving behind the metallic core that we observe today.
Present-day Psyche orbits in our solar system's main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, and is thought to have a nickel-iron composition, which would give it a similar makeup to Earth's core. By sending a spacecraft to explore this ancient body, NASA could glean insights into the processes that shaped the formation of our solar system. It could also present a rare opportunity to study the exposed core of another world.
The mission to Psyche recently passed a major review, allowing it to transition from a preliminary design stage, known as Phase B, to Phase C, during which the hardware will take shape. Scientists and engineers will now begin finalizing the design of the spacecraft and instruments, prior to fabricating, assembling, and finally testing them.
The probe will carry with it a suite of advanced scientific instruments, including a magnetometer that will measure the asteroid's magnetic field, and a multispectral imager that will take high-resolution images using a range of filters to help distinguish between metallic and silicate elements. It will also boast gamma ray and neutron mass spectrometers, which will be used to determine what the enigmatic solar system body is made of.
The spacecraft will additionally make use of a cutting-edge laser communication technology that encodes data in photons (instead of radio waves), allowing the craft to send more data at once than would be possible using a traditional communication system.
The main body of the spacecraft, known as the "bus," is due to be completed by May 2020. The probe will then undergo further assembly and testing to make sure that it is up to the rigors of life in space, before being shipped off to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch.
It will take the probe three and a half years and a handy gravity assist from Mars to reach Psyche. The spacecraft will then spend 21 months analyzing the asteroid from four different orbits, with each successive orbit taking the robotic explorer closer to the surface of the alien world.
Source: NASA JPL